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16th May 1999
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In this four-part series, Richard Boyle delves into the fasinating field of cobra-love

Cobra: the most spiritual of animals

Another poisonous snake is called noya, of a greyish colour, about four feet long. This will stand with half its body upright two or three hours together, and spread his head (hood) broad open, where there appears like as it were a pair of spectacles painted on it. The Indians call this noy-rogerati, that is, a king's snake: it will do no harm." - Robert Knox, from An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon (London: 1681).

Cobras have fascinated me ever since the time when, as a small boy in England, I first encountered my grandfather's almost one metre high brass statue of this awesome reptile. Standing imposingly erect on a swirling coil of tail, and with its hood distended to reveal the peculiar spectacles marking on the skin, this extraordinary likeness to the living thing had me spellbound from the first time I peered into those reptilian eyes.

I was too young then to put my thoughts into words, but if I were to do so today, I would say that I dimly perceived an age-old mystery in those eyes, a mystery that involves the power of nature and the frailty of humankind. No doubt it was for this reason among others that the cobra became a potent religious and secular symbol in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the East.

My grandfather's statue displays a degree of craftsmanship rarely, if ever, met with nowadays. The exact proportions of the cobra's body, its sinuous shape and flowing design, are exquisite. The head in particular is beautifully fashioned, with perfectly formed eyes, dozens of delicately incised teeth and Cobra: the most spiritual of animalseven flared nostrils.

A series of tiny yet precise indentations depict the edge of every scale on its body, as well as the spectacles marking found on both the front and back parts of the distended hood. Indeed, the statue is flawless except for the long missing forked tongue, which could be detached from the mouth by means of a screw thread.

It is tempting to think that this statue was made on the island during a period when craftsmanship attained a much higher standard, but the likelihood, I suppose, is that it was made in India. Of course, small modern day versions of this design can be found in handicraft establishments in Sri Lanka, but invariably they are made from inferior metal and bear the inaesthetic results of crude execution.

My grandfather purchased his statue in England at a sale of antiques during the 1920s. I have often contemplated on the possible identity of the cobra's previous owner. Perhaps, I have thought, it had belonged to an army officer, planter or colonial administrator who had returned to the land of his birth on retirement, bringing with him the possessions he had acquired while living in the Indian sub-continent.

On the other hand, being a non-conformist, I have also secretly hoped that it had belonged to a less conventional figure. Perhaps he was a dedicated Orientalist - a John D'Oyly, a Hugh Nevill, or a John Penry Lewis - who had become immersed in the culture of the land in which he had served and for whom the statue had some personal significance or important symbolism, rather than being a mere ornament.

Later in childhood, some years after my introduction to the family's brass cobra, I began to collect, study and breed the beautiful European grass snake. I even had fanciful ideas of being a herpetologist when I grew up. It was inevitable, therefore, that I developed an interest in the snakes of Sri Lanka soon after my arrival on the island, and that the cobra became my focus of attention.

However, having turned out to be a writer rather than a herpetologist, much of this interest was centred on the documented folklore and non-scientific literature concerning the cobra, together with the anecdotal and historical references to this snake contained in travel writings and accounts of the island. This article does not pretend to be an examination - exhaustive or otherwise - of the physiology, habits and suchlike of the cobra, although I hope it is scientifically accurate. Rather it is a more general guide to the surprisingly large subject of cobra lore and literature.

"If all symbols are really functions and signs of things imbued with energy, then the serpent or snake is, by analogy, symbolic of energy itself - of force pure and simple, hence its ambivalence and multivalencies." So asserts the Spaniard, J. E. Cirlot, in the English translation of his book, A Dictionary of Symbols (London: 1962), which has served me well for over thirty years.

Cirlot goes on to suggest that the great variety of symbolism concerning the snake ("that most spiritual of animals," as Philo of Alexandria termed it), is due to these meanings relating not only to the reptile as a whole, but also to any of its major characteristics. For example, symbolic meaning is given to its sinuous movement, its common association with the tree, the way it sheds its skin, its threatening tongue, the undulating pattern of the body, its hiss, its method of attacking its victims by coiling itself round them, and so on.

Of Eastern symbolism in particular, Cirlot writes: "Snakes are guardians of the springs of life and of immortality, and also of the superior riches of the spirit that are symbolised by hidden treasure." (My italics.) Which is the point where Sri Lanka and the cobra interface with universal symbolism concerning snakes.

The relationship between humans and cobras on the island can, of course, be traced back many thousands of years, probably long before such intellectualising. As is generally known, a piratical tribe called the Nagas, who had a king and worshipped the cobra as a symbol of destructive power, inhabited the northern and western coasts during early history. So numerous were they that the country became known as Nagadipa, the "Island of Serpents."

Mudaliyar C. Rasanayagam devotes the first chapter of his book Ancient Jaffna (1926), to this fascinating subject. "The Nagas were supposed by the ancients to be serpents living underground obviously because in Sanskrit the word 'naga' means 'serpent,'" he wrote. "They were supposed to be endowed with supernatural powers by which they could metamorphose themselves into human beings at will."

In his book Ceylon: An Account of the Island Physical, Historical and Topographical (London: 1859), Sir James Emerson Tennent provides an interesting footnote to a sentence in which he likens the designation Nagadipa to the way the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus severally acquired the name Ophiusa (from the Greek ophis, meaning snake). This footnote has relevance to the supposed supernatural powers mentioned by Rasanayagam:

"Strabo (the lst century AD Greek geographer) affords us a striking illustration of the Mahavamsa in calling the serpent worshippers of Ceylon 'Serpents', since he states that in Phrygia and on the Hellespont the people who were styled ophiogeneis, or the Serpent races, actually attained an affinity with the snakes with whom they were popularly identified."

Rasanayagam also provides a footnote regarding this supposed ability of the Nagas to metamorphose that quotes a more rational explanation by Talboys Wheeler. He claimed: "In the process of time these Nagas became identified with serpents, and the result has been a strange confusion between serpents and human beings."

The scholarly Mudaliyar puts forward another reason why the Nagas might have been called so. "There have been various conjectures made as to the origin of the true Nagas," he writes. "Some thought that they were so-called because they were serpent-worshippers; and others have surmised that the name was derived from the fact that their head-covering was in the shape of a hydra-headed cobra."

Some believe that the Nagas were of Mongoloid stock and that they had migrated originally to northern India, but had later been forced by Aryan invasions to seek fresh settlements farther south. Others have cast doubt on the well-worn Aryan invasion theory of migration. Whatever their origin, it is reasonably clear that a Naga kingdom existed in the north of the island from the 6th century BC to the middle of the 3rd century AD.

After the demise or assimilation of the Nagas on the island, elements of their cobra connections were incorporated in Buddhism as well as popular folklore and superstition. For instance, cobras became associated with the incarnations of dead people, who in their new, ophidian lives guarded hidden treasure, Buddhist temples, Bo-trees and the like. As an extension of this belief, guardian cobra statues like my grandfather's began to be found in houses situated in pairs on either side of an entrance or doorway.

Road-builder Major Thomas Skinner, writing to Tennent in 1858, mentions the occasional domestication of cobras in Ceylon for use as living guardians or protectors. "Did you ever hear," Skinner asked Tennent, "of tame cobras being kept and domesticated about a house, going in and out at pleasure, and in common with the rest of the inmates? In one family near Negombo, cobras are kept as protectors, in the place of dogs, by a wealthy man who has large sums of money in his house. But this is not the solitary case of the kind. I heard of it only the other day, but from undoubtedly good authority. The snakes glide around the house, a terror to thieves, but never attempting to harm the inmates."

Cobras, or nagas, are also considered to be water spirits. Sometimes they are personified and represented as standing under a many-hooded cobra's head, as in a typical guardstone. John Lindsay Opie gives a good description of such a guardstone in the photographer Roloff Beny's book, Island Ceylon (London: 1970):

"The lithe strong body of the serpent is surmounted by a fan of seven hoods, above which there is a chattra, or royal umbrella, signifying a naga king. Naga stones were set up by baths, ponds and tank sluices to protect and bless the waters. As guardians of treasure, they also have their images in the relic chambers of the dagobas."

Like all nature spirits, nagas are in themselves neither beneficial nor harmful. However, after Lord Buddha subjugated them along with other spirits of the Hindu cosmology they became wholly beneficent guardians of his person and doctrine. As a result of such symbolism and association, Buddhists have respected the cobra down the centuries and are reluctant to harm it.

It so happens that the cobra often frequents the vicinity of human habitation, much in the same way that the rat-snake does. The belief that cobras living thus are relatives reborn as guardians, together with the influence of Buddhism, has meant that they are rarely killed but placated instead. However, if a cobra does not depart when politely requested to do so, it is usually caught, placed in a sack and thrown away at an isolated spot, often into a river.

J.W. Bennett warns the inquisitive and unwary traveller in Ceylon and its Capabilities (London: 1843): "It is by no means uncommon, in crossing or in excursion upon Ceylon rivers, to fall in with bags (made of matting and tied at the mouth) floating with the stream; and great caution is ncessary in opening them, for they generally contain one or more snakes of the sacred kind, (Naya), that some devout Buddhist had dispatched upon a cruise, with a stock of provisions, consisting of boiled rice and an egg or two.

"From these facts it may be collected that if Buddhists object to kill the Naya, from religious motives or superstitious veneration, they nevertheless think it no sin to send it upon an aquatic excursion, without possibility of escape from its confinement, and with the certainty, if met by Europeans, that the reptiles will change their temporary immersion in water for a more permanent one in spirits."

Curiously, it appears that cobras - the 'water spirits' - are good swimmers, so perhaps they are able to survive such an excursion. Sometimes cobras are to be found in freshwater pools, swimming actively and even diving in pursuit of frogs. Most surprisingly, however, they show an inclination to put out to sea. Tennent provides several instances of such daring in his Sketches of the Natural History of Ceylon (London: 1859):

"When the Wellington, a government vessel employed in the conservancy of the pearl banks, was anchored about a quarter of a mile from the land, in the Bay of Kudremalai, a cobra was seen swimming vigorously towards the ship. It came within twelve yards, when the sailors assailed it with billets of wood and other missiles, and forced it to return to land.

"On a later occasion, in the vicinity of the same spot, when the Wellington was lying at some distance from the shore, a cobra was found and killed on board, where it could only have gained access by climbing up the cable. It was discovered by a sailor, who felt the chill as it glided over his foot.

The folklore of Sri Lanka accurately describes the cobra as being shy and retiring by nature, unless it is provoked. (Remember Robert Knox's bold words, "it will do no harm" quoted earlier? And, for example, my youngest son has a cobra T-shirt bearing the legend "I belong to the reptile family that is known for kindness." This temperament is in marked contrast to that of the Russell's Viper (tic-polonga), which, being viperine, displays malice and aggression. Indeed, there is a popular belief that a deadly enmity exists between these snakes, hence the proverb "they hate like the tic-polonga and the cobra."

"The Singhalese believe the tic-polonga to be far the most wanton of the two," as Tennent explains. To illustrate this, Tennent narrates a well-known example of folklore that had first been recorded in English by Robert Knox in An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon (London: 1681):

"Once upon a time a child, in the absence of its mother, was playing beside a tub of water, which a cobra, impelled by thirst during a long-continued drought, approached to drink, the unconscious child all the while striking it with his hands to prevent the intrusion.

"The cobra, on returning, was met by a tic-polonga, which seeing its scales dripping with delicious moisture, entreated to be told the way to the well. The cobra, knowing the vicious habits of the other snake, and anticipating that it would kill the innocent child which it had so recently spared, at first refused, and only yielded on condition that the infant was not molested. But the tic-polonga, on reaching the tub, was no sooner obstructed by the little one, than it stung him to death."

In his Folk Stories of Sri Lanka (Colombo: 1974), George Keyt relates the traditional tale of The Glass Princess. This concerns seven princes who, while on a journey, pause at a lake to relieve their thirst, not knowing that beneath the water lies some treasure, which is guarded by a great cobra. When the cobra demands to be given one of the princes in return for the drink, the youngest bravely volunteers.

However, the cobra does not harm the prince. Instead the great reptile tells him he has a wound that will only heal with the medicine in the possession of the far-off Glass Princess, so-called because she sleeps on a glass bed. The prince embarks on a journey to find the princess, does so, and brings her to the cobra. When cured, the benevolent cobra bestows the treasure on the prince, who, needless to say, ends up by marrying the princess.

One curious piece of folklore maintains that the stomach of the cobra occasionally contains a precious stone of "such unapproachable brilliancy as to surpass all jewels," as Tennent depicts it. "This inestimable stone is called the naga-manikkya; but not one snake in thousands is supposed to possess such a treasure. The cobra, before eating, is believed to cast it up and conceal it for the moment; else its splendour, like a flambeau, would attract all beholders.

"The tales of the peasantry in relation to it," Tennent continues, "all turn upon the devices of those in search of the gem, and the vigilance and cunning of the cobra by which they are baffled; the reptile itself being more enamoured of the priceless jewel than even its most ardent pursuers.".

(Continued next week)

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